February 15, 2002
By KEITH SHARON
The Orange County Register
PLACENTIA -- The sixth-grader emptied his bank account.
All $250. For Ben Vail, 12, that's Xbox money with enough left over for a new baseball bat. His mom offered to pay half, but Ben refused. This had to be his money. His to give away.
Ben and his classmates, inspired by an enthusiastic teacher, learned a lesson about the far-reaching impact of compassion, and a Brea family learned that a group of kids has the power to change lives.
In the 48 hours after a fire gutted the Brea home of special-education student Kenny Bamber in March, the 40 kids in Lisa Burgess' class at Golden Elementary raised $1,500. They collected dozens of bags of clothes, groceries, toys and games and persuaded several businesses to donate gift certificates to help the Bambers.
Today, Burgess' 2001 sixth-grade class will come together again to accept the first Pay It Forward Foundation Award, a $2,000 grant to Golden Elementary that the school will use to buy new library books. The award was inspired by the novel and film "Pay It Forward," in which a teacher challenges a student to try to change the world.
The 12-year-old character named Trevor comes up with a plan: Help three people, and instead of getting them to pay you back, ask them to pay it forward - help three more people.
The novel's author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, will present the award in a noon ceremony at the school. She chose Golden Elementary as the foundation's first winner from about 500 entries across the nation. Some raised more money. Some worked longer and harder on their projects. But at Golden, the students used their own money, and that touched Hyde.
Frank Kane made his mother drive him to the bank and withdraw all of his $166. Wesley Heuler decided not to go on a Boy Scout camping trip so he and his father could help the Bambers rebuild their home. Everyone contributed something.
Burgess gave the donations, without fanfare, to a secretary at George Key School, a campus for severely handicapped students. Kenny, 15, has Down syndrome. The secretary passed the goods along to the Bamber family. Burgess' intent was to teach the lesson that the giving itself was the reward.
"Part of the lesson is that we don't expect anything in return," Burgess said. But it turned out there would be more to the lesson. Not only did the Bambers find out where the help came from, the gesture was nominated for a national award. And it won.
"Their project reminded me the most of Trevor McKinney (the boy in the novel)," Hyde said. "I want the Pay It Forward award to be something that can be won on heart. Every aspect of what this class did gives me goosebumps."
The Bamber fire started in the garage. Kenny's dog, Morgana, had given birth to 12 puppies, and the Bambers put a floor heater in the garage to keep the dogs warm. On March 21, the heater shorted and caught fire. It was Morgana's last bark, Nancy Bamber said, that woke the family up and saved their lives. Kenny, his brother, Richard, and parents Nancy and Ken got out alive.
"My Mom and Dad were screaming," Kenny said. "They were scared. I smelled it. I thought I was going to die. I jumped out the window. People saw my underwear." Morgana and all the puppies died. The Bambers, who have lived in the house for 10 years, were caught without fire insurance. A new mortgage company had taken over their loan and mistakenly dropped the family's fire insurance, Nancy Bamber said. They had been trying to save money and so didn't resume paying the premiums.
The next day at school, Lisa Burgess heard about the fire. Burgess is the kind of teacher who can laugh about getting pelted with water balloons, which her class did to her last year. She has a life-size cutout of Austin Powers in her classroom. She is the kind of teacher who hugs and laughs and tapes a picture of herself in sixth grade on the wall. She is also the kind of teacher who teaches character. In Burgess' class, character is just as important as math, English and history.
Last year, she asked her students to volunteer pushing wheelchairs and feeding students at George Key School. That's where some of them got to know Kenny. "Other people might turn their heads away," Burgess said. "But instead of showing pity, which gets you nowhere, I want them to think - Let's do something." The morning after the fire, Burgess asked her class to come up with a way to help.
When Mary Beth Tang picked up her son - Frank Kane - that afternoon, he told her he was going to donate $5. Then he thought about it overnight. The next day, he asked his mom to take him to the bank. When he got home with all his savings, he and Ben Vail went to Home Town Buffet and persuaded the manager to donate a gift certificate.
"I am so happy that my son had a teacher like Lisa," Tang said. "She has made a mark, and it is going to stick. She goes beyond an academic curriculum and serves them soul food."
Tang nominated her son's class for the Pay It Forward award after seeing the foundation mentioned when she rented the movie video.
When Kenny Bamber returned to school two days after the fire, he was called to the office. When he entered, he saw 50 bags of clothes, groceries, toys and games.He dropped to his knees and held out his arms as if he could embrace all the things people had given him.
"All for me?" he asked. All of it.
"I was so happy," Kenny said. "They're my best friends now. It was so cool."
When Nancy Bamber was called to the school a week later, she was a little upset that no one told her why.When she arrived, she saw all the donations -- so many bags and boxes, she still, a year later, hasn't opened them all. Then someone told her about the kids from Lisa Burgess' class.
"There were a whole bunch of emotions," Bamber said. "That class gave us a start on our life again." She found her way to Burgess' class. "I didn't know what to say, so I cried," Bamber said. "What wonderful people those kids are growing up to be." Burgess cried, too. But Burgess always cries. Her kids continually make her emotional.
The Bambers used the cash donations to buy an electrical pole to restore power to their home.
Two days later, Wesley Heuler and his father, John, went to the Bamber home instead of Scout camp and volunteered to clean up. "I believed it was more right to help other people than to go have fun," Wesley Heuler said.
The Pay It Forward lesson seems to have worked.
This year, when four members of the Ybarra family of Placentia were killed in a fire, Burgess' new class of sixth-graders held a parking-lot sale to raise money."Kids are every bit as capable as grownups -- and I think they're even better at some respects - to look at the world and see what's wrong," Hyde said.
"When people get to the point where the world is too bleak, they can read stories like the one at Golden Elementary," Hyde said.